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Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1784 (Musée du Louvre). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
- We're in the Musee du Louvre, and we're looking at Jacques-Louis David's "The Oath of the Horatii." Sometimes, it's pronounced "Horati," if you don't know how to pronounce Latin. It's an extraordinary story that has a real place in the revolutionary history of France. - It was exhibited in 1785, four years before the revolution, and it tells a rather complicated story. - This is the story of warfare between a very young Rome and a neighboring city, Alba. These were two tribes that were in constant conflict, and rather than do battle as city against city, both of the cities decided that they would choose three combatants on each side. Whoever won that battle would win the war. On the Roman side, the Horatii brothers are chosen, and they are shown here taking an oath that they will fight to the death on behalf of their city. Their father holds their swords aloft, and the relatives mourn the coming battle on the right. - This is taken from a source from ancient Roman history, from Livy. There were other contemporary sources, but David is inventing this moment of the oath-taking, focusing on the idea of a willingness to die for one's country, for a principle. One of the sisters that we see here of the Horatii is married to one of the Curiatii brothers -- - The opposing side from Alba. - So, she's going to lose either her husband or her brother. - As it turns out, she loses her husband and then her brother kills her. - He comes back from the battle, Rome is victorious, only to find that his sister is disturbed by the death of her husband, and he kills her because one should be guided by one's feelings of patriotism, and not personal feelings about family. - This notion of family, the notion of personal concern, is seen as secondary and it's hard not to, then, extrapolate from that some of the issues that are taking place in contemporary France when David was painting this in 1784, and that has to do with the luxury that is loved by the aristocracy, as opposed to -- this has a heroism that David seems to be calling for here. Where is the sacrifice? We can pull through this together if, in a sense, the good of the state is put at the fore. This is a really powerful idea at this historical moment. This is just four years before the revolution, and this is a moment when there's tremendous unease with the monarchy, and especially with the aristocracy. In France at this moment, the aristocracy is living an extraordinary life, at a time when the nation itself is bankrupt. So, this notion of willingness to sacrifice oneself was a very powerful ideal that David is bringing into the political narrative of this moment. It's important to note that the painting was not made in France. It was not made in Paris. It was made in Rome. He decided to look closely at antiquity, specifically at ancient Roman sculpture, and painting, and friezes. When you look at this painting, there is a radical break with the rococo that came before it. This is the birth of neo-classicism, and what we see is a frieze of figures that look as if they might have come off a Greek vase. - David seems to be really emphasizing a severity and starkness. The space itself could not be simpler. It's divided into three by these round Roman arches, very severe Doric order, a shallow space created by the use of linear perspective, and figures painted in a very linear style with firm contours and a real interest in human anatomy, in drapery that reveals the form of the body underneath it, and so we really do see David's interest in ancient Greek and Roman art. - David had used a raking light, that is, light is passing across the surface of the canvas, across the surface of those men, so that there's a tremendously sharp contrast. The space, as you said, is perfect and geometric, and very rational. All this geometry is meant to evoke this notion of the rational. It's literally like a tic-tac-toe board. You've got the foreground, where all the figures are laid across the surface. You've got a very clearly defined middle space, in the squares that you see, actually, in the paving, and then beyond the screen of columns. The columns are Doric. That is the simplest, most severe of the ancient orders. - The linear perspective will take us to a vanishing point, which is where the hands and the swords meet. That's clearly the emotional focus of this painting. The male figures who are taking this heroic oath are contrasted with the female figures, who are dominated by curvilinear soft forms, compared to the angular forms of the men. - What's interesting is that this painting was a commission by the king of France, and was exhibited in the salon in the Louvre in 1785. Now, there's a little bit of showmanship here, because David painted this painting in Italy. The salon was open for a few weeks, but the painting actually came late, but there was a fairly prominent place for the painting up on the wall, and it was blank. People really wanted to see it. There were apparently quite a number of rumors about this radical new painting that this young artist was putting forward. When it finally was put up, the crowds were so great that the salon had to extend itself so that everybody who wanted to see it could see it. - David really introduced an entirely new kind of painting, an example of virtue, of virtuous behavior, of the idea of sacrificing oneself for a good, for a principle, that clearly resonated with people, and clearly resonated, especially at the time of the revolution. - It's important to note that those ideals are expressed, not only through the narrative, but through the very style of painting itself.